MILWAUKEE — A Nets team expected to win the NBA title opens this season Tuesday against the Bucks squad that ended its run last season. And to rub some salt in that still-fresh wound, the Nets are going to have to watch Milwaukee celebrate getting the championship rings they thought would be theirs.
“It goes without saying we’re definitely excited,” Joe Harris said. “We would’ve been excited no matter who we were playing against. This is going to be an awesome atmosphere. Sour taste in our mouth the last time we played against Milwaukee, so obviously excited we get to start off with them to start the season.”
Brooklyn dropped an instant classic Eastern Conference semifinals series against Milwaukee, losing a gut-wrenching Game 7 with James Harden hobbled, Kyrie Irving out injured and Kevin Durant hitting what he thought was a series-winning 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer, only to realize it was a long 2-pointer that forced OT.
The Nets’ loss in that overtime sent them home for the season and propelled the Bucks on to the championship. It’s a title they’ll celebrate Tuesday, getting their bling in front of a nationwide audience (7:30 p.m., TNT) and a Nets team that could be even further inspired by watching.
“We’ll see how our group responds,” Steve Nash said. “They may have extra motivation. They may just be locked into what their jobs are. So I’m not really sure how they’ll respond to that, or if that’ll have an impact on them. But more than anything, I just want our guys to be prepared to start fast and play well.”
Harris, who struggled mightily in the Eastern Conference semis, clearly will be on the motivated end of the spectrum.
“That’s what we hope to be is in that situation where we’re opening up in that position. But nothing to discredit Milwaukee, they had an unbelievable season. Rightfully NBA champions,” Harris said of the Bucks, who held him to 13-for-49 shooting — including 8-for-33 from deep — in the last five games of that series.
“They’re an unbelievable team with a lot of talent across the board. Right now, they’re the team to beat. For us, it’s not looking too far ahead, though. One game at a time. All of the focus is on Milwaukee and getting a good start to the season.”
That might be tough, with 10 new faces added to the roster that have to get used to each other, and one very huge subtraction in Irving. They ended last season playing without him, due to his Game 4 ankle sprain suffered landing on the foot of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. And they’ll play without him indefinitely this season, due to his refusal to adhere to New York City vaccine mandates.
That, and Durant’s rematch against Antetokounmpo, will add flavor to a matchup that the league schedule-makers wisely teed up for opening night.
“That’s by design. The league always tries to make interesting matchups opening night to generate that interest and start off with a bang,” Nash said. “So it’s great. Those are those are the nights you get most excited for and we get to play champs first time out and test yourself.”
The Nets need to find someone who can slow the Greek Freak. Durant will get a shot, as will Blake Griffin. But will Griffin start at center as he did down the stretch last season, or at power forward? He started alongside young center Nic Claxton in the preseason finale, and practiced that way on Saturday as well.
Durant saw a lot of PJ Tucker last season, but the rugged defender is in Miami now. With Semi Ojeleye and Bobby Portis having missed the preseason, Durant could be guarded by Jordan Nwora. But whoever it is, Durant said the Nets will be excited to start the season.
“No matter what we play, we’ve got to hold ourselves to a championship-level standard, and we’re not exercising good habits if we only get up against teams like Milwaukee,” Durant said. “Everybody’s excited for the first game … but we want to keep this energy, no matter where we play.”
At just 11-7 against the seven teams that were more than 15 games below .500, it’s a valid worry.